"Juan, go and get the cakes from Juan Ramos's", my father would say to me while he was drinking his camomile tea. My father was a man with a delicate stomach, which meant that he had to watch what he ate, almost everything made him feel ill. Perhaps that was why he got in a bad mood sometimes.
But my mother understood this well and took good care of him. Every morning before breakfast, she brought him a cup of strained camomile and some of Juan Ramos's cakes. Father tipped the camomile tea into a bowl to cool it down, and drank it in small sips. I sat at his side to watch him drink the infusion and await the order.
The camomile of Alcalá was famous. It was a wild plant which a man brought in a sack from the Sierra del Aljibe, over by the peaks of the “Pilita de la Reina”. Many excellent aromatic plants for making infusions grew up there; thyme, rosemary, camomile, lime flower, lavender … But the camomile was the best in the world. The people of Alcalá appreciated it greatly and were addicted to it.
When my father gave the order I jumped up, grabbed the money, went through the gate and ran like the wind up the Calle la Amiga. I passed by the barracks of the Guardia Civil, where in summer there was always a guard in the entrance, sweating, with his jacket undone and a jug of water on the floor, typing away. I took the “Carril Alto” and went down the street drawn by the smell of hot bread, buns and cakes. That street now seems to be called “Fernando Casas” and opens up into the Plazuela. On that corner where the Carril joins the Calle Real, Juan Ramos's little shop used to be.
Juan Ramos was an easy-going chap, a shopkeeper by vocation, who knew all his customers so well that as soon as someone came in he knew what they wanted. For me he would wrap up half a dozen round, soft, warm, sweet-smelling tarts … They looked like the famous macaroons from Utrera, but they were even better. Their smell and their flavour have remained forever in between my salivary glands and my childhood memories.
I went back the same way, running, because my father was very impatient and had to be at the Town Hall by half past eight. I would watch closely as he dunked the cakes in the cup to moisten them with the coffee. Sometimes there wasn't time for them to get from cup to mouth, and they would fall on the table. Then he would say “This one is for my Juan”. My mother would bring me coffee with milk and some toasted bread with oil and sugar, but by then the cake would already have disappeared.
Alcalá's home-baked sweets and pastries were excellent; cakes made with olive oil, almond cakes, tortas de chicharrones1, cakes with raisins, “angel hair” cakes, meringues, marzipan ... the latter was also one of Juan Ramos's specialities. He made elaborate little marzipan figurines and sold them to the kids in the streets, to the delight of the little girls and boys. They were playful figures of animals and real-life characters from Alcalá.
The fried sweets were equally exquisite; doughnuts, honeyed fritters, fried bread or picatostes, leche frita2, fried pastry rings, tejeringos3 made by a gipsy who had a stall on the Alalameda … And the sweets made at Christmas and Easter: rice with milk; pumpkin in honey, the honey of the Alcornocales; stuffed cheese with honey; quince in syrup …
They say that we were taught how to make many of these sweets by the Moors. And in truth, when I've been over to Morocco I have seen them in refreshment stalls on the city streets, at fiestas, in the soukhs and in the markets. But the buns of Juan Ramos I have never come across since. Sometimes, when I pass through Alcalá, I go to the Horno de Luna in the Callejón de Bernadino and buy bread, soft rolls, tortas de pellizco4, and other whims to stir up my childhood memories. But those cakes and those marzipan figures have disappeared forever along with Juan Ramos.
1. A savoury-sweet cake made with sugar, lard and crumbled pork scratchings.
2. Dessert made of milk thickened with flour, coated with egg and fried.
3. Local name for churros, thick batter squirted through a syringe and deep-fried.
4. Sweet buns leavened with yeast and sprinkled with cinnamon.
Translated by Claire Lloyd